Feast Day

Feast Day October 4, 2005

Today is the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, who died 779 years ago yesterday.

Another holy fool is being honored this week in Wilmington, Del., where residents yesterday gathered to remember William Drew Asnis.

Known to his neighbors as "Prayin' Bill," Asnis lived on the street, offering prayers for the city and for everyone he encountered there.

Bill's sister, Christine Claire Archer, said that 15 years ago her brother, a graduate of Cornell University, left his teaching job at University of California-Santa Cruz, where he taught creative writing, and migrated east, settling in Wilmington.

He gave up all his earthly possessions to minister to the downtrodden on the streets of Wilmington. Bill also gave up contact with his Jewish father and Episcopalian mother in Tennessee

For years he prayed at Fifth and Madison streets before moving his street-corner ministry to Hilltop.

"Bill prayed for everybody," said Westside Neighborhood Coalition president David Gwyn. "He'd be praying right in the middle of the street. He was well-respected. Everybody loved Bill."

The once-brilliant professor suffered a breakdown and became a troubled itinerant. He also became, to many on the streets where he lived, an instrument of God's peace.

Unlike St. Francis and Prayin' Bill, I have not abandoned my home and all my earthly possessions. I have good reasons for this, but I also have plenty of bad ones. Not so much reasons as excuses, really.

That's not to say that I feel called, or compelled, or obligated, to imitate their example, but such bold actions did make it unambiguously clear that they had entered the fray. They got in the game. They took sides.

Frederick Buechner describes what I'm trying to get at here in The Alphabet of Grace:

My interlocutor is a student who under various names and in various transparent disguises has attended all the religion classes I have ever taught and listened to all my sermons and read every word I've ever written, published and unpublished, including diaries and letters. He is on the thin side, dark, brighter than I am and knows it. He is without either guile or mercy. …

The interlocutor speaks. He is sitting at the opposite end of the Harkness table where I teach, as if to raise the question which is the head of this table and which is the foot. He tips back his chair. "You mean you think you should be down there in the thick of it, right? Salving your conscience in one of the more plausible ghettos? Slogging it out beside Spock and Coffin. Marching on the Pentagon. Delivering turkeys at Christmastime. The trouble is you don't have the face for it, sir. You don't have either the face for it or the guts for it. If you ever left this room and entered the real war, you know what you'd end up doing, don't you?"

I know, of course, but I shake my head. I would rather have him be the one to say it.

"You'd end up rolling bandages," he says.

"Maybe I should be rolling bandages," I say.

There's nothing wrong with rolling bandages. God knows, more bandages are always needed, and someone has got to roll them. Maybe I should be down there in the thick of it, rolling bandages.

Instead, of course, I've chosen to contribute by doing … other things. By, you know, um, working within the system to bring about change. So I spend a decade or so on a magazine that never gets off the ground. I work for a newspaper. I add another chapter to a ridiculous review of a ridiculous book. I write, read, act, listen, sort the recycling and pay the bills.

And all the while the interlocutor sits down there at the head of the table, half-grinning. "You do what you do," he says. "I'm sure someone else will roll the bandages."

Anyway, a prayer on the Feast of St. Francis:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace;

where there is hatred, let me sow love;

when there is injury, pardon;

where there is doubt, faith;

where there is despair, hope;

where there is darkness, light;

and where there is sadness, joy.

Grant that I may not so much seek

to be consoled as to console;

to be understood, as to understand,

to be loved as to love;

for it is in giving that we receive,

it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,

and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

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